About Friends

06/30/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

My gang in college was comprised of ten or so guys, all slightly left of conventional. We banded together by striving to be a bit disrespectful (though not so much as to fail classes). Meeting late at night in smoke-filled dormitory rooms (often mine), we plotted strategies to run for campus offices and rule the dorm. (None of us had joined a fraternity.) I was the least radical of any of us.

We graduated midway through the 1950's; some got drafted in the Army, all went on to traditional careers.

The exception was Will (as I'll call him). A couple of years after graduation, Will entered law school in a large city near the university. One night he committed suicide in his apartment.

What I liked about our gang was its composition of guys from differing backgrounds and many parts of the country. Will had not come from some large center of culture that prepared him for a university but from a poor family in a small Midwestern town, where, we decided, he must have become more or less self-taught. No one was a more natural for our group. He was thin and intense, had a plodding kind of walk, wore un-trendy clothes, and knew voluminous facts about law and history. Perhaps the smartest of the group, it was not beyond imagining him a future Supreme Court justice.

When word got around about Will's death, it was accompanied by the knowledge that when he died, in his closet were found women's cosmetics and women's clothes in his size.

Stop! Could that predilection be what downed someone so smart? Was he gay, or did he just like cross-dressing? Who cared? Whatever the issue, why did he not seek counsel, help, relief, perhaps acceptance? I felt angry at him when I heard the news, as if he deserted not just his family but those of us who esteemed him so highly, we who would be the least likely ever to stigmatize him.

Will was not my closest friend at school, maybe because I was intimidated by his brilliance. And I hadn't kept up with him afterward, partly because we settled in different cities. But that didn't matter. His suicide of fifty years ago made me shudder and does so still today. Time in college was scarce, when you lived in one another's pockets and formed intense friendships even in the knowledge that they might fade before long. At no other period in my life did the people I meet and like have that kind of impact on me.

I don't remember that Will dated girls in college, but even those of us who did date girls didn't form relationships that lasted later. Those were mostly puppy-love, finding-your-way affairs. And three or four of us turned out to be gay. He might have been one of us.

As decades have passed, I've sadly lost other college pals. But neither at the time of Will's death, nor since, did I know of the suicide in his early twenties of a man not smart but brilliant. Taking his own life was an act beyond understanding, deeply unworthy of his intelligence.

I ask myself if what happened to Will could happen today. Of course it could. Although our world is far more accepting, cross-dressing does not make the headlines it once did, and gay marriages are now sanctioned nation-wide, inner tortures haven't all been wiped away.

Whatever were our individual hurdles to overcome, each of our gang from college managed to go on to successful careers and live long enough to enjoy good lives. That didn't happen to Will.

But it might have.

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Stanley Ely writes about many friends in his book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.